The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book I/Chapter V

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Philosophers and Divines, 1720–1789

AN old-time classification of the human faculties will serve to explain the development of American thought in the eighteenth century, a development which led to the overthrow of high Calvinism. As there were three divisions of the human mind—intellect, sensibility, and will, so were there three divisions among the enemies of orthodoxy. Those who followed the intellect were the rationalists, or deists. Those who followed sensibility were the "hot" men, or enthusiasts. Those who followed the will were the ethical reformers, who emphasized the conscious cultivation of morality rather than a divinely wrought change in man's nature. This last group constituted the Arminians, the first in order of time in leading the assault upon embattled tradition. When Jonathan Edwards, in 1734, complained of the "great noise in this part of the country about Arminianism," he showed his alertness to the preliminary attack of the enemy. That attack was especially directed against the middle of the five points of Calvinism. It was not so much against particular redemption, or the perseverance of the saints, as against irresistible grace that the battle-cry was raised. The reason given was that such grace was bound to destroy man's free agency and convert him into a mere machine. This explains why Edwards threw up as a counterscarp his massive work upon the freedom of the human will wherein that freedom was virtually denied.

Meanwhile, the second group, the men of feeling, came into action. Received as allies, they turned out to be anything but a help to the cause. After the religious revival and the great awakening of 1734, Edwards the logician became, in a measure, Edwards the enthusiast. But calling in the aid of evangelists like George Whitefield carried sensibility beyond the limits of sense. To argue against the Arminians that, because of irresistible grace, men lack all native moral power, was to make men altogether passive in conversion and to run the risk of being carried away in a flood of feeling. So while Edwards warmed up his system by his writings on the Religious Affections, Whitefield had to be cautioned by the Connecticut divine for his too great dependence upon impulse. Brought in as an ally, Whitefield thus became an unconscious underminer of high Calvinism. It was one thing to preach irresistible grace; it was another to lack the restraining grace of common sense.

It was this lack which brought in the third group, those who sought the test of intellect. Agreeing with the Arminians as to the importance of the will, and opposing the enthusiasts for their extravagance of feeling, they had behind them the whole weight of the age of reason. But here a paradox appears. While, in general, our eighteenth-century thought went through the three phases of the conventional classification of man's powers, the development of that thought was anything but conventional. Before the problems of the will and of the feelings could be determined by the orderly processes of reason, the controversy was complicated by the irruption of a foreign force. George Whitefield was the disturber of the peace, and through him the question of morals lapsed into a question of manners. It was not denied that the evangelist did some good. The fault lay in the way in which he did it. Against this inspired son of a tavern keeper the New England clergy united in using the adjective “low,” and naturally, as leaders of provincial society, they damned anything that was low. This staid and proper body, priding themselves upon dignity in deportment and rationality in religion, were, moreover, outraged at the conduct of an itinerant preacher who held forth in fields and bams and preferred emotional tests to cool conviction. New England now saw revealed the old struggle between masses and classes, between town and gown. Against the enthusiasts and ranters the clergy and the college authorities were speedily arrayed. Whitefield decidedly made a tactical blunder when he brought railing accusations against divines like Charles Chauncy (1705-1787), pastor of the First Church in Boston, and Edward Wigglesworth (1693-1765), professor of divinity in Harvard College. On his first visit to the colonies, Whitefield had made some unhappy remarks about the provincial universities as “'abodes of darkness, a darkness which could be felt,” and about the collegians at Cambridge as “'close Pharisees, resting on head knowledge.” On his second visit, he added insult to injury by saying that on account of these “unguarded expressions” a few “mistaken, misinformed, good old men were publishing half-penny testimonials against the Lord's Anointed.”

The reference here is, among others, to Wigglesworth, The latter, in his reply, does not deign to defend the college against the charge of being a seminary of paganism, but proceeds to attack its defamer: first, because of his manners, next, because of his ways of making money, and lastly, because of the evil fruits of enthusiasm. He grants that an itinerant, who frequently moves from place to place, may have a considerable use in awakening his hearers from a dead and carnal frame. But while such an exhorter may have a manner which is very taking with the people, and a power to raise them to any degree of warmth he pleases, yet in thrusting himself into towns and parishes he destroys peace and order, extorts money from the people, and arouses that pernicious thing—enthusiasm.

This attack was to be expected. The New England clergy, as chosen members of a close corporation, abhorred the disturbers of their professional etiquette and were alarmed at poachers upon their clerical preserves. It not only threatened their social pedestals but it touched their pockets to have these “new lights” taking the people from their work and business and leading them to despise their own ministers.

This aspect of the Whitefield controversy shows that the causes of the opposition were largely social and economic, the same causes which worked—though in the other direction—in the opposition to the establishment of English episcopacy in the land. When the New England fathers had both “pence and power,” as Tom Paine would say, it was natural that they should not relish the loss of either, at the expense of high churchmen or low itinerants. But a cause deeper than the economic lay in this outraging of the spirit of the times. This was the age of reason, and the leaders of church and college prided themselves on being of a cool and logical temperament. Hence Wigglesworth's most serious charge against Whitefield is that of irrationality. Enthusiasm, he explains, is a charge of a higher nature than perhaps people are generally aware of. The nature of enthusiasm is to make a man imagine that almost any thought which bears strongly upon his mind is from the Spirit of God, when at the same time he has no proof that it is. In short, to be of an enthusiastic turn is no such innocent weakness as people imagine.

This was Wigglesworth's caveat to the public Whitefield might have made it out a mere halfpenny testimonial had it not been succeeded by the formidable work of Charles Chauncy. This was the volume entitled Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743). That state, in the eyes of the pastor of the First Church in Boston, was, in one word, bad. The preaching of “disorderly walkers,” especially their well-advertised preaching in other men's parishes, it was argued, would lead, should it become the general practice, to the entire dissolution of our church state. But besides the evil effect upon the body politic, there was that upon the human body. With remarkable acumen, Chauncy points out the abnormalities in the practices of revivalism. The new lights, he recounts, lay very much stress on the “extraordinaries,” such as agitations, outcries, swoonings, as though they were some marks of a just conviction of sin. This is their inference, but the real fact is that the influence of awful words and fearful gestures is no other than “'a mechanical impression on animal nature.” And the same natural explanation holds for the joy of the new lights. It may have its rise in the animal nature, for some have made it evident, by their after lives, that their joy was only a sudden flash, a spark of their own kindling. And when this is expressed among some sorts of people by singing through the streets and in ferryboats, from whatever cause it sprang it is certainly one of the most incongruous ways of expressing religious joy.

It must not be inferred from these strictures that Chauncy was a sour Puritan, averse to people's happiness. The contrary was the truth. His objections lay in the superficial and ephemeral character of the religious emotions among the new lights. Their joy was evidently but the reaction of relief from the fearsome tenets of their preachers. The doctrines of total depravity and eternal damnation struck terror into the heart of the sinner. Now it was by a sort of incantation, by a promise of immediate assurance of salvation, that the itinerant removed this terror. It was, then, in a skilful way that Chauncy met such practices. The places where the revivalists had been at work were called the burnt-over districts. To prevent future conflagrations it was then necessary to start a back-fire. This Chauncy did by removing the unreasoning terror of the old doctrines. But it was necessary to do more. In place of the old faith, which, though a painful thing to hold, men were loath to abandon, there must be brought a new and emollient doctrine. New England's nervous diathesis called for something to soothe the system. This came to be found in the exchange of pessimism for optimism; in the replacing of a dread judge by a benevolent deity, belief in whom would give a steady and lasting satisfaction. By 1784 Chauncy, as opposer of the new lights, had learned his lesson. The heart must be appealed to as well as the head. So his argument is built up from below, benevolence being first defined as "that quality, in the human mind, without which we could not be the objects of another's esteem."

With this hint taken from the learned English divine, Samuel Clarke, his American disciple shows how the old doctrines will dissolve of themselves. Out of the five points of Calvinism two were obviously inconsistent with benevolence. One of these was irresistible grace, as the correlate of irresistible power; the other was eternal damnation, as the correlate of total depravity. One reason, therefore, why Chauncy attacked the ranters was that they were reactionaries. But the cruel old penal view was bound to pass away of itself. Men's minds had entered the deistic drift. The arguments of rationality became the telling arguments.

"Some later writers"—and the remark is evidently directed against Edwards—"might make the infinitely benevolent God, the grand and only efficient, who has so connected a chain of causes that His final result should be the everlasting damnation of a great number of the creatures His hands had formed . . . . But such metaphysical reasoning does not stand the test of experience. There is too much skill and contrivance displayed in the formation of this and other globes, too numerous the creatures formed with the capacities of enjoyment to lead to a jaundiced view of the Creator and His attributes. And so many creatures brought into existence according to a settled uniform course of nature, and with a variegated capacity for happiness, preclude the notion of an inscrutable or malevolent deity." [1]

This sort of argumentation reminds one of the discussion of Square and Thwackum on the eternal fitness of things. But with the exception of an occasional hack-writer like Thomas Paine, it was the method generally employed by scholars of the upper class. The method betrays a certain weakness in the middle of Chauncy's work, since it must have gone over the heads of men of the class reached by Whitefield, son of the innkeeper, or by Tennant, promoter of log-cabin learning.

Such an optimistic purview, embracing earth, sun, and moon, dry land and water, became stale, flat and unprofitable. The argument that things as they are, including disease and death, disclose no defect of benevolence in the deity, is not helped by the disclaimer that we "know not the intire plan of heaven and are able to see but a little way into the design of the Deity." This was naught but the old argument of a learned ignorance, much used by the upholders of the scheme of inscrutable decrees.

The strong part of Chauncy's work lies in his attack upon absolute causation. The net of necessity in which the framer of the Berkshire divinity was caught, was escaped by Chauncy through an appeal to common sense.

"The abettors of this scheme," argues the Bostonian, "must clearly and fully perceive its inconsistency with men being free agents, and that it totally destroys the idea of moral good and evil. . . . The argument may hold for beasts of the field, whose whole conduct is the effect of previous choice and pleasure; but for human beings the unbroken concatenation of causes would deprive them of free agency."

And so would it be with that other prop of Puritanism, the belief in divine intervention.

An infinitely benevolent being might interpose, as occasion required, to prevent the mischief that would otherwise take place, but possibly the method of communicating good by general laws, uniformly adhered to, is, in the nature of things, a better adapted one to produce the greatest good, than the other method of interpositions continually repeated.”[2]

In a life that nearly spanned the eighteenth century, Chauncy affords an excellent example of the double reaction of the age of reason against the doctrines of irrationalism. His works had these two merits; they undermined the harsh doctrines of Calvinism which the new lights had utilized to strike terror into the hearts of the unthinking; and they afforded a substitute for sentimentalism, for, in place of violent joy, one could gain a placid contentment in the ways and works of Providence.

Another thinker of ability, but of a less noble and elevated style, was Chauncy's younger contemporary, Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), a graduate of Harvard in 1744, and best known for his lively attacks upon the Tory doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance. Mayhew gained a reputation for bringing a new style and manner into preaching. The son of a father who argued with ingenuity in behalf of human liberty, he was reputed to be a cheerful, liberal man, opposed to the gloomy doctrines of former times. Thus he early declared total depravity both dishonourable to the character of God and a libel on human nature. Mayhew's opposition to the five points of Calvinism was considered so imprudent that, at his ordination over the West Church, the Boston clergy declined the invitation to dine with the council, and one cautious cleric advised his barber not to go and hear such a heretic. Mayhew was really that, for he violently resisted the doctrine of irresistible grace, and entirely rejected the doctrine of the Trinity as taught by the Athanasian and Nicene creeds. In this he pointed the way to the coming Unitarianism, and that almost two generations before the Unitarian manifesto of 1819.

Although on the “new side,” Mayhew was opposed to the “new lights.” Long before the coming of Whitefield, he had been present at a religious revival in Maine, noticed its extravagance and fanaticism, and the people's violent gestures and shrieks. From this early experience, he came to value “rational religion” the more highly. The phrase is significant. Upon the arrival of Whitefield in Boston in 1749, Mayhew claimed that the evangelist's hearers were chiefly “of the more illiterate sort,” and that the discourse itself was “confused, conceited and enthusiastic.”

The old term of reprobation reappears. So, like Chauncy himself, Mayhew offers the same antidote. In place of a God of wrath and terror, he would put the Scriptural God who is represented “under the characters of a father and a king, the wisest and best father, the wisest and best king.” This sentiment eventuated in two Thanksgiving sermons “On the Nature, Extent and Perfection of the Divine Goodness." In these the argument is ingenious. While Chauncy held that wisdom without goodness might be good, Mayhew held that goodness without wisdom might be bad. The political writer now appears in the doctrinal and shows that his God is no easy-going monarch whose goodness is to be considered mere good nature.

“As we recall certain well intentioned governors,” he argues, “who, despite their paternal affection, have wrought prodigious mischief to the State, so we may in some measure conjecture, if we are not afraid even to think, what might be the consequence of boundless power, though accompanied with universal benevolence, but not adequate wisdom, extending itself at will thro-out the universe.”[3]

But the argument must not lead to the Calvinistic cul-de-sac, whereby there is no other end for punishment, on the part of the king of heaven, save his own glory. As Mayhew in his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (1750) had remonstrated against the orders from Whitehall, so here he remonstrates against the inmutable decrees of the Westminster Confession. His reasoning leads to a literal reductio ad absurdum.

Tho' God is, in the highest sense, an absolute sovereign; yet in that ill-sense, he is not certainly an arbitrary Being. . . . For what glory could possibly redound to any being acting unreasonably, or contrary to the dictates of true goodness? It is peculiarly absurd to suppose that He, who accounts goodness his glory, should aim at advancing it by such a conduct.[4] With the same caustic irony with which he had flavoured his celebrated Reflections on the Resistance Made to King Charles I, Mayhew seeks to prove that the king of heaven, though absolute, is not arbitrary.

“The Earthly Prince,” he continues, “may take off the head of the traitor, robber, or murderer, not to gratify his own anger, but for the common good. Contrariwise, punitive justice may be a branch of goodness, but how far from goodness it would be to condemn the bulk of mankind to eternal misery.”[5]

The amiable heretic of Massachusetts may here be contrasted with the rigid Calvinist of Connecticut. Edwards, in his dreadful Enfield sermon, implied that the majority of his hearers were in danger of hell fire. Mayhew calmly carried out that implication. He had taken as an appropriate text for his Thanksgiving sermon, “The Lord is good to all.” But this, for the sake of the argument, he is willing to change to, “The Lord is good to three-fourths of His creatures, and His tender mercies are over three-fourths of all His works,”—and so on down to the smallest fraction of mankind.

Mayhew is a master of ironic attack. He discloses this in his political discourses, ranging from that against Non-Resistance to that against the Stamp Act. But when it comes to defending his views, he is weak. He declaims effectively against the terrible punishment to be meted out by the Calvinistic judge of all mankind, but, in upholding benevolence, he outdoes the most complacent deist of his day. The first of his Thanksgiving sermons contends that the nature of divine goodness admits of strict application a priori. The companion sermon attempts to make that goodness of universal extent, and goes to such extremes as praising December weather in the town of Boston. But though the arguments are forced, these provincial writings have a certain interest as being prototypes of those hollow documents, the Thanksgiving proclamations of governors and presidents.

Through the two Massachusetts divines, Chauncy and Mayhew, one may traverse, by parallel paths, the whole controversy between old and new lights, a controversy beginning with a narrow emotionalism and ending with a rationalistic trend towards universalism. A similar course of thought, but expressed with far higher literary skill, may be pursued in the writings of the Connecticut scholar Samuel Johnson (1696-1772), a graduate of Yale College in 1714, a disciple of George Berkeley when he came to Rhode Island in 1729 and, in 1754, the first head of King's College,[6] New York. Especially does Johnson's Elementa Philosophica strike a balance between extremes. Like the Alciphron of Berkeley, to whom the Elements was dedicated, Johnson's work was directed against both fatalists and enthusiasts. The author's situation was logically fortunate. He was familiar with both “predestination and fanatical principles” and avoided the excesses of each. Brought up in Yale College, under the rigid Rector Clap, he came to dislike the severities of Puritanism. Acquainted with the ways of “that strange fellow Whitefield,” he was also opposed to the doctrines of grace, as preached in the revivals. Strict Calvinism, as he contended against Jonathan Dickinson, “reflects dishonour upon the best of Beings”; while this “odd and unaccountable enthusiasm,” as he wrote to Berkeley, “rages like an epidemical frenzy” and, by dividing the dissenters, proves to them a source of weakness rather than of strength.

Johnson's position was that of a moderate man. Add to that his cheerful and benevolent temper, and he appears one of the most attractive of the colonial thinkers. His education in Connecticut, his trip to England, his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, were all part and parcel of his training in letters. Educated at New Haven at a time when the old lights framed the policy of the college, Johnson, as he says in his autobiography, “after many scruples and an intolerable uneasiness of mind” went over to “that excellent church, the Church of England.” This change, which necessitated a public disavowal of his former faith, was due in large measure to browsing in forbidden fields. Before Johnson's graduation, some of the speculations and discoveries of Descartes, Boyle, Locke, and Newton had been heard in the Connecticut colony. But the young men were cautioned against these authors, as well as against a new philosophy which was attracting attention in England. The reason given was that the new thought would corrupt the pure religion of the country and bring in another system of divinity.

It was characteristic of Johnson, brought up in the darkened chambers of Calvinism, to attempt to obtain a glimpse into the brighter world outside. He had partially done this in reading a rare copy of Lord Bacon's Advancement of Learning, with the consequence of finding himself “like one at once emerging out of the glimmer of twilight into the full sunshine of open day.” For himself this result was reflected in a manuscript entitled The Travails of the Intellect in the Microcosm and Macrocosm. For the benefit of others who might be lost in the “palpable obscure” of scholasticism, Johnson next drafted A General Idea of Philosophy. In this, philosophy is artfully described as “The Study of Truth and Wisdom, i.e. of the Objects and Rules conducing to true Happiness.” Such a definition was in marked contrast with the atmosphere of the college of Connecticut, where, as Johnson's earliest biographer put it, “the metaphysics taught was not fit for worms.”

In 1731 Johnson had enlarged this “Cyclopaedia of Learning,” into an Introduction to the Study of Philosophy. The purpose of this tract was to set before young gentlemen a general view of the whole system of learning in miniature, “as geography exhibits a general map of the whole terraqueous globe.” The plan of the tract was likewise noteworthy. Instead of making man's chief end to glorify God, it made the happiness of mankind to be God's chief end. In the meantime, for the purpose of obtaining Episcopal ordination, Johnson had made a trip to England. There the young colonial had the distinction of meeting Alexander Pope at his villa, and the English Samuel Johnson. He also visited Oxford and Cambridge universities, from both of which he was later to be honoured with the doctorate of divinity. But, as he subsequently wrote to his son, who made a similar literary pilgrimage, he confessed that, though he liked “to look behind the gay curtain,” he preferred “ease and independence in the tranquil vales of America.” On his return home, Johnson found neither ease nor tranquillity. Coming back to the land of the blue laws, he felt obliged to preach and write against current Calvinism. Thus one parish sermon was directed against absolute predestination, “with its horror, despair, and gloomy apprehension,” while one pamphlet contended that the “Doctrine of Divine Sovereignty as implying God's eternal, arbitrary and absolute determination ... is contrary to the nature and attributes of God, because inconsistent with the very notion of His being a moral governor of the world.”[7] Yet even in this discussion against the Presbyterian Jonathan Dickinson, Johnson exhibits a lightness of touch which relieves the subject of much of its soberness:

Suppose some unhappy wretch entirely in the power of some arbitrary sovereign prince. Suppose the sovereign had beforehand absolutely resolved he should be hanged, but for the fancy of the thing, or purely to please himself, and gratify a capricious humour of his, commands him to lift a weight of ten thousand pounds and heave it to the distance of a mile, and tells him if he will do this he will give him an estate of ten thousand a year, and if he will not do it he shall certainly be hanged. At the same time he promises and designs him no manner of help or means whereby he might be enabled to accomplish it. It is true he speaks very kindly to him, and gives him several great encouragements expressed just like promises. He tells him if he will be up and doing he will be with him, and that if he will try and strive and pray for help, his labour shall not be in vain. However, the truth of the matter at the bottom is that he never intends to help him, having beforehand absolutely resolved he shall be hanged, and without help he can no more stir the weight than create a world. Now I humbly conceive that this unhappy wretch is under a necessity of disobeying and being hanged.[8]

Johnson's skilfulness was shown better in his constructive than in his controversial writings. If he rendered Calvin absurd by his use of the satirical paraphrase, he rendered Berkeley plausible by the glamour of his style. He was first attracted to the Irish idealism because it supplied him with the strongest arguments against the doctrine of necessity. But when Berkeley himself came to America, the neophyte fell in love with the author and his system at the same time. It was then that Johnson, according to his best biographer, became a convert to the “new principle,” which he regarded, when rightly understood, as the true philosophical support of faith. The denial of the absolute existence of matter, a whimsical paradox to the superficial thinker, he found to mean nothing more than a denial of an inconceivable substratum of sensible phenomena. The affirmation of the merely relative existence of sensible things was to him the affirmation of orderly combinations of sensible phenomena, in which our corporeal pains and pleasures were determined by divine ideas that are the archetypes of physical existence.

The correspondence between Johnson and Berkeley was the most notable in the history of early American thought. It is a great literary loss that not all of Berkeley's letters have been recovered, for in them, as Johnson wrote, one can gather “that Candour and Tenderness which are so conspicuous in both your writings and conversation.” From these disjecta membra of Johnson, however, one can reconstruct the very form of that idealism which rescues us from the absurdity of abstract ideas and the gross notion of matter, takes away all subordinate natural causes, and accounts for all appearances by the immediate will of the Supreme Spirit. From Johnson's correspondence, then, one can gather Berkeley's own notions as to archetypes, ectypes, space, spirits and substance. The fragments throw a flood of light upon subjects of high interest to the metaphysician, but the effect upon the mind of the disciple was more important, for through such veritable Berkeleian handbooks as were Johnson's, the seeds of idealism attained a lodgment in the American mind. Fruition did not occur until the time of Emerson, but for sheer literary skill in the presentment of a system deemed impossible by most men of that day, Johnson's Elements was remarkable. The good bishop, to whom the volume was dedicated, did not live to see it, but, as was remarked by Berkeley's son, this little book contained the wisdom of the ages and showed the author to be very capable of spreading Berkeley's philosophy.

The spreading of that system, however, was checked by untoward circumstances. When a French critic observed that Anglo-Americans of the late eighteenth century were unfit to receive or to develop true idealism, he probably had in mind the commercialism of the day and the threatening political state of affairs between the colonies and the mother country. Indeed, in both places immaterialism found the times out of joint. From Philadelphia, then the literary centre of the country, Franklin, the printer of the book, wrote that those parts of the Elements of Philosophy that savoured of what is called Berkeleianism are “not well understood here.” And in London one can imagine the reception that would be given to a colonial production, from the anecdote recounted of the son of the American Samuel Johnson when he met the great lexicographer. The latter, after speaking harshly of the colonials, exclaimed, “The Americans! What do they know and what do they read?” “They read, Sir, the Rambler,” was the quick reply.

Like son, like father. The elder Johnson was able to extricate himself from even such difficulties as those offered by the Berkeleian system. He also had the boldness to apply the principles of the new rationalism not only to all men, but to all ages of man. Intellectual light, he argues, is common to all intelligent beings, a Chinese or Japanese, a European or an American. It is also to be found in children. In contrast to such an opinion as that of Jonathan Edwards that infants were “like little vipers,” Johnson asserted that we ought to think them of much more importance than we usually apprehend them to be. Considering their achievements in learning not only the mother tongue but the divine visual language, we should apply to them the good trite old saying, Pueris maxima reverentia debetur.

Considerations such as these were so contrary to the spirit of the times as to arouse opposition from both sides. To consider children worthy of reverence was opposed to the Puritan view of them as born in sin, and to consider that man as such is assisted by an inward intellectual light “perpetually beaming forth from the great fountain of all light” ran counter to the common sense of the day. Thus William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, who held the place once offered by Franklin to Johnson, argues against these very issues as presented in the Elements. “Our author,” he explains, “from a sincere zeal to vindicate the rights of the Deity, and a just abhorrence of the absurd system of the materialists, has gone farther towards the opposite extreme than will be justified by some philosophers.”[9] The extreme here referred to was, of course, Berkeleianism, against which the Philadelphian argues in substance as follows: The Dean, while at Newport, might have been justified in putting into his Minute Philosopher rural descriptions exactly copied from those charming landscapes that presented themselves to his eye in the delightful island at the time he was writing,—that was all very well; but for the Dean's disciple to attempt to introduce into the schools and infant seminaries in America this unadulterated Irish idealism was another thing. Doctor Johnson, explains his critic, only pretends to teach logic and moral philosophy; his logic and his morality are very different from ours. There is no matter, by his scheme; no ground of moral obligation. Life is a dream. All is from the immediate impressions of the Deity. Metaphysical distinctions which no men, and surely no boys, can understand . . . will do much to prevent the fixing of virtue on her true bottom.[10]

Such was the ironical fate that befell Johnson. Though he had done good service against the enthusiasts, and had written the best ethical treatise of colonial times, he was nevertheless charged with being fantastical, and his work with undermining morality.

A similar fate befell the last of our colonial thinkers, John Woolman (1720-1772), the Quaker, a sort of provincial Piers Plowman, whose visions of reform were far ahead of his day. In his Journal, the humble tailor of New Jersey takes up, in order, the evils of war and of lotteries, of negro slavery and excessive labour, of the selling of rum to the Indians, of cruelty to animals. Moreover, like the visions of the Plowman, Woolman's work might be called a contribution to the history of English mysticism. Whittier described the Journal as “a classic of the inner life”; Channing, as “beyond comparison the sweetest and purest autobiography in the language”; while Charles Lamb urged his readers to get the writings of Woolman “by heart.”

These writings are in marked contrast to the controversial spirit of their time. They avoid entangling alliances with either the old or new divinity, and have little to do with the endless quarrels between Calvinists and Arminians. In place of doctrine and formal creed come “silent frames” and the exercises of the interior or hidden life. The contrast is like that portrayed by Woolman himself when he said that “while many parts of the world groaned under the heavy calamities of war, our habitation remains quiet, and our land fruitful.”

In Woolman, then, we have the fruits of quietism as contrasted with the fruits of controversy. Duties rather than doctrine are emphasized, and all with that air of innocent simplicity held so desirable by the Society of Friends. Because of his candour and his fervour, Woolman might be called a socialist unconscious of his socialism, except for the fact that his efforts were exerted in a private capacity, and that he offended not even those with whom he laboured—soldiers, slave owners, dealers in goods which were to be looked upon as contraband to Christianity. He accomplished his results upon the Quaker principle of natural sensibility. In marked contrast to the Calvinist principle of the depravity of the human heart, he argues upon the possibilities of the human mind towards good:—“that as the mind was moved, by an inward principle, to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being; by the same principle it was moved to love Him in all His manifestations in the visible world.”[11]

Armed with this gentle logic, he began to set down, not his programme of reforms, but a recital of certain “heavenly openings” in respect to the care and providence of the Almighty over his creatures. The first of those creatures for whom Woolman was concerned was a slave. Here there arose a conflict between the logic of compassion and the logic of commerce, for when his employer obliged him to write a bill of sale for a poor negro woman, he was much afflicted in mind. As was his wont, Woolman now began to gather reasons for his feeling of uneasiness. That which was against conscience he now finds to be against logical conviction, especially when in a journey to the Southern provinces he meets with slave owners. To their arguments in favour of fetching negroes from Africa for slaves because of the wretchedness occasioned by their intestine wars, he replies that liberty is the natural right of all men equally. But this general principle—a commonplace of the age of reason—is not so effective as one more particular: There is great odds on what principle we act. If compassion on the Africans, in regard to their domestic trouble, were the real motives of our purchasing them, that spirit of tenderness being attended to, would incite us to use them kindly. But to say they live unhappy in Africa is far from being an argument in our favour; our real views in purchasing them are to advance ourselves, and, while our buying captives taken in war animates those parties to push on the war and increase desolation amongst them, we too are putting upon our shoulders a burthensome stone, a burden that will grow heavier and heavier till times change in a way disagreeable to us.[12]

Upon this argument, presented with a kindly shrewdness, many of Woolman's slave-owning hearers looked serious. It was a prophecy of the irrepressible conflict between slave-holders and free-holders, and that over a century before that conflict came. So the prospect of a road lying open to degeneracy in some parts of this newly settled land of America, now drove Woolman to publish, and at his own expense, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes Recommended to the Professors of Christianity of every Denomination (1754-62). The author is troubled with a weight of distress because, instead of the spirit of meekness, gentleness, and heavenly wisdom, a spirit of fierceness and a love of dominion too generally prevails. Yet it is not criticism, but compassion, that furnishes Woolman with his strongest lever against that great building “raised by degrees, from small beginnings in error.” In a series of indirect questions, the logician of the heart brings the matter home. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of the slave trade, he argues in this fashion:

Should we consider ourselves present as spectators, when cruel negroes privately catch innocent children, who are employed in the fields; hear their lamentable cries, under the most terrifying apprehensions; or should we look upon it as happening in our own families, having our children carried off by savages, we must needs own, that such proceedings are contrary to the nature of Christianity.[13]

In the light of such disclosures, Woolman might have attacked the accursed institution with directness and bitterness, but his method is ever indirect, ever imbued with a sweet reasonableness. “The English government,” he continues, “hath been commended by candid foreigners for the disuse of racks and tortures, so much practiced in some states; but this multiplying slaves now leads to it; for where people exact hard labour of others, without a suitable reward, and are resolved to continue in that way, severity to such who oppose them becomes the consequence. . . These things are contrary to the true order of kind providence. Admit that the first negro man and his wife did as much business as their master and mistress, and that the children of the slaves have done some more than their young masters. ... It follows, that in equity these negroes have a right to a part of this increase .... Again, if we seriously consider that liberty is the right of innocent men; that the Almighty God is a refuge for the oppressed; that in reality we are indebted to them ... to retain them in perpetual servitude, without present cause for it, will produce effects, in the event, more grievous than setting them free would do.”[14]

And so in a final passage breathing the very spirit of the Society of Friends, the Quaker liberator presents the fundamental objection to the keeping of the poor blacks in servitude:

There is a principle, which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God.—It is deep, and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root, and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.[15]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

  1. Benevolence of the Deity, pp. 32, 53, 55, 61.
  2. Benevolence of the Deity, pp. 132, 133.
  3. Divine Goodness, p. 16.
  4. Ibid., p. 26.
  5. Divine Goodness, p. 38.
  6. Now Columbia University.
  7. Letter from Aristocles, 10 September, 1744.
  8. Letter . . . in defence of Arisiocles, pp. 14-20.
  9. Preface to the Elements.
  10. Letter to the Rev. Richard Peters, July 18, 1754, from the original in the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
  11. Journal, p. 9.
  12. Journal, p. 60.
  13. Keeping of Negroes, p. 317.
  14. Keeping of Negroes, p. 298.
  15. Ibid, p. 325.